The Goat That Ate Islamic Science
May 12, 2010
The Ayatollah Khomeini once remarked that there are no jokes in Islam. If that is true, it is not for want of material. My latest favorite, related to me by Ibn Warraq, has to do with the rather unfunny hadith—one of the purported sayings and deeds of the Prophet and his companions—that requires death by stoning for adulterers. Once during a debate in London, Warraq made good on his entire career as the world’s leading apostate by coming up with the one-liner that he didn’t want to live in a society in which one gets stoned for committing adultery, but rather in a society in which one gets stoned and then commits adultery. But that was not the joke we were talking about.
It seems that the stone-the-adulterers commandment has long been the subject of theological controversy because although mandated by traditional religious law, or shari’a, it does not appear in the Quran. Instead, the Quran mentions the much less severe punishments of flogging or perhaps confinement. Some fornicators actually get into such things, maybe even in combination. Presumably a death sentence would have been important enough to merit inclusion in the revelation. Why didn’t Allah mention it before? According to another hadith, He did. Muhammad had written down the revealed verse on a piece of paper and placed it under his bed for safekeeping. One day while Muhammad had taken ill and the household was preoccupied with nursing him, a goat wandered in and ate it.
Islamic scholars took from this story not the lesson that I find obvious—that the goat was a second Messenger of Allah, who wanted to show Muhammad exactly what he could do with his bonkers idea of stoning adulterers. Instead, they used it to argue that were it not for the goat, the Quran would have (therefore should have?) included the missing verse and that this resolves the apparent doctrinal inconsistency—a hermeneutics of animal husbandry.
I’m sorry. This comic tale doesn’t really have a punch line. But it does reveal something about the nature of knowledge and epistemic authority in Islam, and this may go a long way toward explaining why Arab-Islamic societies never produced a scientific revolution while European societies did.
The Religion of He-Said, He-Said
A major preoccupation of Islamic scholars is verifying the “genuineness” of various hadith. Their preferred method is to trace the transmission from one source of these stories to the next, as in
Abu al-Ayman narrated to us, saying: “Shu’yab narrated, saying: ‘Abu al-Zynad told us that Abd al-Rahman ibn Hurmuz al-A’raj . . . narrated to him that he heard from Abu Hurayrah who heard the Prophet saying…’1
A text is considered trustworthy when one can establish an unbroken chain of personal testimonies leading back to a person who had direct contact with the Prophet. Islam is a religion of he-said, she-said—minus most of what she said, of course. (In the case of the goat-ate-my-surah story, however, the original source was said to be a woman, or rather a girl: Aisha, Muhammad’s child wife.)
Note: This is from an antiIslamic website.